Frederica der Esslingen is the independent daughter of a nobleman who frequently ventures outside the walls of her father's castle near Strassburg, Germany. On one of her outings, she goes to visit her friend, Helga, a well-respected herbalist and midwife, who has been like a surrogate mother to Rica and her identical twin sister, Etta, since their own mother died years ago. At Helga's cottage, Rica meets Solomon ben Jacob, the handsome son of a wealthy Jewish merchant who is training to become a physician. Solomon and Rica experience a strong, immediate attraction to one another which leads to a deep relationship based on mutual respect and love, but theirs is a forbidden passion laden with difficulties and peril. Because Solomon is Jewish and Rica is Catholic, they risk their very lives for each stolen moment together. Rica's father has also betrothed her to Rudolf, one of his vassals, without her knowledge. On the surface, Rudolf seems honorable, but at the same time he exudes an air of danger. Nevertheless, when Rica discovers that Etta is in love the pious knight, she vows to do everything she can to help her beloved sister win him, for Etta has already experienced much trauma and heartache in her young life. Everyone thinks Etta to be simple-minded, but Rica, the only one to whom she speaks, knows the truth. The sisters begin a risky game of impersonating each other to trick Rudolf into falling for Etta, but they won't be able to hide their true identities forever. In the meantime, Rica's love for Solomon continues to grow, as the pall of the Black Death ominously shrouds much of the civilized world waiting to claim its next victims, and Solomon's life may be in jeopardy not only because of his devotion to Rica but because the Jews are being blamed for the plague.
For the second time in as many months, I have been gifted with a little gem of a read that I don't often see mentioned in romance discussion circles, yet I found it to be so unique in both content and presentation that I can't imagine it not satisfying any romance reader who is looking for something different from the norm. A Bed of Spices is an inter-ethnic story of forbidden love between a Jewish man and a Catholic woman who literally risk their lives just to be in each other's company much less realize the fulfillment of that love by marrying. They are also from opposite sides of the tracks, for Solomon is the son of a merchant, while Rica is the daughter of a nobleman. In addition, both characters struggle frequently between their passionate natures and the puritanical ideology of the time, and whether their feelings and desires for one another are right or wrong. If the main characters aren't unusual enough, the story has an out-of-the-ordinary setting as well. While most medieval romances take place in England, A Bed of Spices is set in and around the bustling city of Strassburg, Germany against the backdrop of the Black Death no less. This made the story quite fascinating, but until reading it, this was certainly not an environment which I would have thought to be conducive to a good romance novel.
While this book is anything but politically correct, it is very historically accurate, actually teaching me things I didn't know, particularly about Jewish history. I had known that there were other historical persecutions of Jews besides the World War II Holocaust, but I didn't realize that there were other instances of widespread genocide of Jews. In fact, nothing short of another holocaust took place in the mid-14th century when Jews were ignorantly accused of causing the Plague (although greed and religion also played a part) and were executed by being burned alive (a literal meaning of the word holocaust). The Jews of that time also had to wear a yellow patch on their clothes to denote their ethnicity. All of these elements in the story both fascinated and horrified me to the point that I had to do a bit of study on the subject myself. In my mind it is the mark of a good author for them to be able to draw me into the history of a novel so much that I not only learn something from reading it, but want to know more. The other thing in this book that is very un-PC is the inequality of women. Women, even nobles, were typically uneducated and unable to read. Young ladies were pledged in marriage at a very young age, which is illustrated by a vassal of Rica's father asking for the hand of a 12-year-old girl, though he was one of the kind secondary characters and said that he would wait a while to actually take her as his wife. I thought it was rather ingenious that the author doesn't specifically state Solomon and Rica's ages, leaving it up to the reader to imagine whatever age they felt appropriate, but I got the sense that Rica herself was probably no more than a teenager. There is a secondary character who was raped at the tender age of six, and because of her non-virginal status, is thought of as a whore by some of the men in the story, and women in general are ingrained with the idea that they alone are responsible for inflaming the passions of the men around them. I was fully able to reconcile all these things in the historical perspective in which they are presented, but any reader who considers themselves a true feminist should definitely be prepared for some brutal reality in this book. In addition to the actual history, I was impressed with the author's use of a more realistic grammar and syntax for that era. While I know that it wasn't entirely accurate (it would be very difficult for the average person to understand real Middle English in modern times), I thought that it did lend another air of authenticity to the story.
Aside from all the uniqueness in the plot, I absolutely fell in love with the two main characters, Solomon and Rica. Solomon is a sweet beta hero who is very tender and loving and isn't afraid to show his true feelings to Rica. Instead of the typical knight hero of medieval romances, Solomon is a physician in training, and quite well-suited to that profession, in my opinion. He is a very gentle soul which is evidenced by the grief he feels at the the loss of life due to the various medical conditions and diseases of the time. He also possesses an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the human body as well as why and how certain individuals are able to survive the Plague. He is one of the few men in the story who doesn't try to exert his dominance over the women, instead appreciating Rica as his intellectual equal which is a large part of what attracts him to her in the first place. In addition he does not think himself too good to learn medical knowledge from Helga, a renowned herbalist/midwife in the area, and he is in constant appreciation and awe of the general beauty of all the women around him. Rica is a very strong, capable and intelligent young woman who was fortuitous enough to have been educated by the castle priest who couldn't contain his enthusiasm for teaching, and since there was no male child in the family, Rica became the beneficiary of his knowledge. She too has a hunger to read and learn and wishes that it were possible for her to attend university like the men. Rica is an all-around admirable heroine who is kind and gentle, but also independent and filled with fiery passion.
Since the history of the story isn't romanticized at all, it can sometimes feel rather intense and heavy. Even Solomon and Rica's relationship is constantly tinged with danger and bittersweet moments, yet their love and the joy they share in each other's company stands out as a beacon of light against the dark backdrop of pain and sorrow around them. I loved that Solomon could always tell the difference between Rica and her twin sister, Etta, and near the end when I thought one of those cliched misunderstandings was going to get in the way, low and behold, he actually figured things out for himself which was utterly refreshing. Both characters have very deeply complex family relationships, mainly with fathers and siblings, but I always felt like I understood everyone involved even if I didn't agree with them. Helga, who was like a second mother to Rica and Etta after their own mother died, was a wonderful character, as was the kind vassal, Lewis. Rica's twin, Etta, was a very heartbreakingly tragic character, but I liked that the author kept an air of mystery surrounding her so that the reader is never quite sure if she is sane or not. Rica's suitor and Etta's love, Rudolf, is also mysterious in that one moment he would seem like a good, pious man and the next he would exhibit hints of evil. Although Rica and Etta played a game of who's who with the other characters in the story, I appreciated that the author made sure the reader was always in the know, otherwise it would have gotten very complicated.
Even though I really enjoyed A Bed of Spices, there were a few small things that kept it from quite being sheer perfection for me. Some passages were rather simplistically rendered, and I thought that a bit more details in those areas would have added more vibrancy to the narrative. There were also some repetitive word choices in a few places. I thought the author did a very good job with conveying the sexual tension between Solomon and Rica when they were together and their unrequited longing for each other when they were apart, so I found myself wishing that there had been just a little more steam when they finally consummated their relationship. Normally sweet, non-explicit love scenes are perfectly fine with me, but in my opinion, the mildness of this one didn't quite fully communicate the intense passion and deep emotional connection they seemed to feel for one another. Also, the author was very clear that Solomon and Rica's mutual attraction had an intellectual as well as physical basis. This was an element that I really appreciated and found to be very believable, but there wasn't quite as much demonstration of that cerebral connection as I would have liked to see. These are relatively minor complaints though, which didn't significantly detract from my enjoyment of the story, and I can't help but give it a few extra points for its historical significance and depth of characterizations. Overall, A Bed of Spices was a wonderful book which I would highly recommend to any romance reader looking for something out of the ordinary which breaks the typical romance novel mold. This is another one of those out-of-print books which I sought out through library channels, but will now be looking for a copy to own for my keeper shelf. This was my first read by Barbara Samuel, but it has definitely left me open to trying out other books by her. Barbara Samuel's most recent release was written as Barbara O'Neal, and she has also authored a number of category romances for the Silhouette imprint as Ruth Wind.
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